Tag Archives: mike stewart

On playing partisan games as legislature winds down

A sequence of partisan bickering events last week led to the apparent death in the House — barring a last-minute change of heart by Republican representatives as the Legislature moves to adjourn this week — of a Senate-passed bill (SB2149) allowing indigent people convicted of driving with a suspended license to pay their court costs and fines through community service rather than cash, subject to local approval.

The bill is sponsored by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart of Nashville, who has played a pivotal role in pushing Democratic amendments to various Republican-sponsored bills that reached the House floor — almost always voted down by the supermajority.

Here’s a rundown on last week’s events, which began with a noncontroversial bill (HB2009) sponsored by Rep. Shelia Butt, R-Columbia, that changes the wording of some education-related statutes:
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Sunday column: TN Democrats master the art of grandstanding

Democrats in Tennessee’s Legislature seem to have increased their sniping at the Republican supermajority in the current session, as best illustrated last week when Nashville’s Rep. Mike Stewart came to a subcommittee meeting with an assault rifle and a tale to tell.

The tale the House Democratic Caucus chairman told the Civil Justice Subcommittee was about how he contacted a fellow willing to sell the AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle similar to the fully-automatic AR-16 used by American military forces, for $750 on the Internet, then met him the night before the meeting in a restaurant parking lot to make the purchase.

This, Stewart explained, showed the need for passage of his bill to require background checks on person-to-person gun buys, just as now required for purchases from a licensed dealer. He went through no check, Stewart said, adding, “Luckily I am not a member of a drug cartel … not on a terrorist watch list … not a longtime criminal with a big record of felony convictions and violence.”

The panel’s Republicans were not impressed. Subcommittee Chairman Jon Lundberg of Bristol grumbled about Stewart “putting on a show.” Rep. Mike Carter of Ooltewah fretted that the gun might be loaded (it was not, having passed a state trooper inspection). And then they shot down Stewart’s bill on a party-line vote.

Democrats and gun control advocacy groups promptly fired off a round of press releases and statements denouncing the Republicans. The gun was an especially good prop for attracting TV folk.

Say what you will about the merits of the legislation, this was a fine example of a political grandstanding gimmick, reminiscent of the bygone days of Democratic dominance when Republican legislators would do things like wave a pound of bacon in the air while denouncing “pork” in the state budget during a House floor speech.

It might have been a nice added touch if Stewart had bought instead a Barrett Model M82/M107, designated the official Tennessee state rifle via Republican-sponsored legislation that Stewart opposed — but that would probably have cost a lot more than $750.

It took legislative Democrats two or three years after Republicans achieved control of the General Assembly to master the minority party art of throwing political bombs at the majority. But they’ve got the hang of it now and reached a new high-water mark this session.

Stewart may well top the list of a Republican watch list as a Rhetorical political terrorist in Legislatorland. Indeed, House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada said after Stewart’s gun show that he puts the performance at the top of Democrats’ stunt list for the year.

But he has considerable competition from fellow Democrats. Suggested runner-up honors would go to a dynamic Democratic women’s duo, Rep. Sherry Jones of Nashville and Sen. Sara Kyle of Memphis.

Perhaps their best performance was the so-called “tampon tax bill,” which would have lowered the sales tax on feminine hygiene products, baby diapers, non-prescription drugs and some other stuff. The bill got the cold shoulder from Republicans on a Senate subcommittee, which, happily for Democrats’ talking points in the press releases, gave its blessing on the same day to completely exempting sales of gold and silver from the sales tax and voting for most every Republican-sponsored bill in sight — and there are a bunch of them — to repeal or reduce the state tax on investment income.

Jones and Kyle also jointly sponsored the “Viagra bill,” which would have imposed multiple restrictions on treatments for erectile dysfunction. Perhaps not really intended to be taken seriously, the measure encountered stiff opposition from Republicans — all men — on the subcommittee that killed it.

Honorable mention in the political bomb-throwing competition among Democrats could go to several other legislators and, for that matter, to state party Chair Mary Mancini, who issues regular critiques of supermajority doings.

The list could go on at some length. It’s fair to say such performances really haven’t accomplished much in the short term — except for annoying Republicans. But from the partisan perspective, that’s perhaps better than nothing — just as it was for minority Republicans in bygone days, who are now prone in old age to reminisce fondly about fighting the good fight against the odds.

Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for the News Sentinel. The edited version is HERE.

Legislator buys a gun, committee not impressed

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A House subcommittee on Wednesday shot down a bill to require background checks for all gun purchases in Tennessee.

Rep. Mike Stewart, the bill’s main sponsor, showed off a military-style carbine that he had bought for $750 in cash with no background check. The Nashville Democrat argued that in-person gun sales should be governed by the same rules as buying firearms from retailers.

“Luckily, I am not a member of a drug cartel, I am not on a terrorist watch list, I am not a longtime criminal with a big record of felony convictions and violence,” Stewart said.

Republican members were unimpressed with Stewart’s arguments or his display of the AR-15 style rifle, and defeated the measure on a voice vote.
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Ex-warden says TDOC cost-cutting move increased prison violence

Retired prison warden Jerry Lester criticized the state Department of Correction Friday at a news conference arranged by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, reports The Tennessean.

He said Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield’s to reclassify maximum-security prisoners and integrate them with the medium-security population as a cost-saving measure has increased violence directed at both inmates and officers in state prisons.

According to a statement released by a Department of Correction spokeswoman, the department did reassess prisoners’ classifications. A review found some inmates had been placed on the highest level of segregation for nonviolent offenses and there was a disparity in the racial make-up of those placed in maximum security. Wardens were then directed to meet with each prisoner to determine if they were able to reclassify them. More than 90 percent of inmates were successfully reintegrated into the general population, the statement said.

“This was not a cost-saving measure,” the statement said. “This was an effective, strategic part of the department’s management of the offender population.”

The PowerPoint presentation given to reporters on Friday made clear that cost was a consideration in reclassifying prisoners. On one slide, titled “Impacts,” the first bullet reads “COST SAVINGS – Reduce close custody units staffed at a 2:2:1 to a 1:1:1; savings of 3.4 officers per pod.”

“The driving force is money,” Lester said. “We as wardens were directed to integrate them into medium populations … where they continued their predatory behavior among inmates who simply wanted to do their time and go home.”

…Between 2012 and 2014, the number of prisoners classified as maximum security dropped by nearly half, from 1,019 to 514, according to TDOC annual reports. Maximum-security prisoners are the most expensive to guard.

Lester, who retired from his post, said he was also pressured to sign a memo while warden at West Tennessee State Prison to reclassify certain dangerous prisoners to be able to include them in the medium-security population.

The move placed potentially dangerous prisoners with the “rest of the population who became victims of assault, strong-armed robbery, found themselves in the middle of gang activity… and rape,” Lester said. “Not to mention staff assaults and things staff are subject to while they’re trying to run a closed security unit.”

More criticism of prison system’s ‘independent outside review’

The results of a outside review of Tennessee’s prison conditions won’t be released for a month or so, reports WPLN, but some are already calling it a “sham.”

Legislators are concerned that several episodes of prison violence in recent months are the result of staffing shortages. The American Correctional Association was brought in, even though some lawmakers said the organization would be biased because Tennessee prisons pay for regular inspections and are already accredited by the agency.

Tyler Nelson, who is a guard at the Deberry Special Needs Facility in Nashville, says he was called in to talk to auditors last week with a supervisor in the room. He says it lasted just 10 minutes.

“You get halfway done talking about something and ‘oh, sorry man, I gotta go.’ No,” Nelson said. “They were paid to sit there and come in and find out. Why would you walk away from a person telling you what’s wrong?”

Nelson’s chief complaint is a new 28-day scheduling policy that results in more overtime hours and less overtime pay.

Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, stood alongside Nelson at a press conference Monday and said he fears the federal government will take control of Tennessee prisons if the state doesn’t find a way to keep guards from leaving.

“If people think that you’re going to have a bunch of prisons — many of which are now overcrowded — being understaffed systematically over time, with correctional officers routinely being beaten by inmates, at some point the courts are going to step in and prevent that,” Steward said.

Note: See also The Tennessean, which leads its report on ACA Executive Director James Gondles, who headed the Tennessee review, once declining to do a similar review in Boston because there was the perception of a conflict of interest.

“I had in my own mind an issue that if the jail were accredited by the ACA, it would at least appear to be a conflict of interested for me as executive director and an employee to be on any kind of review team,” Gondles told the (Boston) Globe.

Stewart: Review of prison system ‘a rubber stamp’

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart questioned Monday whether the planned outside review of state prison problems by the American Correctional Association will provide an accurate picture, reports the Times-Free Press.

He called instead for a “truly independent” examination by a federal agency and further said the Republican-run Legislature should reinstate a special legislative oversight panel on prisons that GOP leaders abolished four years ago.

Stewart’s comments came at a news conference during which he sought to cast doubt on the impartiality and adequacy of the ACA, an official accrediting agency. The ACA’s heads are state prisons officials from across the country.

The lawmaker said Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield instead should enlist help from the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. It provides technical assistance and training to state prison systems when asked by states.

As reports of problems about violence against guards and alleged reclassification of such offenses to lesser categories continue to be made, not only by correctional officers but by a former prison warden, Schofield announced last week he has asked the ACA to look into those and other issues including understaffing at some state prisons.

That announcement came in a Senate State Government Committee hearing, which followed up on a similar House hearing on problems. Schofield later told reporters the ACA audit of operations at around five of the state’s 13 prisons would be done on top of a preannounced audit.

…He pointed to documents from the Correctional Accreditation Managers Association, an affiliate of the ACA that helps prison officials prepare for accreditation visits.

That includes advice to prison officials on what kinds of hotels to use for housing auditors and on the offering of “gifts” to auditors, instructing prison officials to spend no more than $25 on such gifts for auditors and to make sure they can be “easily carried on a plane.”

“Everything we see about the organization suggests that it is essentially working hand in hand with our correctional management,” Stewart said. “That may serve some purposes, but it disqualifies it as the organization that should be conducting this particular independent review.”

He said there is “no reason to believe [the ACA] is anything more than a rubber stamp.”

See also The Tennessean, which quotes the head of the ACA, who says it won’t go easy on the state, though it’s goal is to help Tennessee improve its prison system.

“Our job is not to tear them apart; it’s to help them,” said James Gondles, executive director of accrediting organization American Correctional Association.

House Democratic Chair Stewart visits Knoxville

In a trip to Knoxville, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart visited his parents and other Democrats, appeared on a party TV show and declared Democrats are still relevant in the Legislature though outnumbered, reports Georgiana Vines.

Stewart was in Knoxville on Friday to appear with his parents, John and Nancy Stewart, on the Democratic-TV program on cable networks and then met with Knox County Democrats at his parents’ home in Bearden.

Mike Stewart spent his teenage years in Knoxville after John Stewart moved the family from Washington to work as a TVA executive following a career as an aide to Hubert Humphrey, the former vice president and U.S. senator from Minnesota, and with federal agencies.

You could say Stewart, 50, cut his political teeth on Humphrey. On the telecast, a picture was shown of Humphrey holding 15-month-old Mike. Stewart said he remembered Humphrey from being with his father once in his office and Humphrey handed him a TV remote, a novelty at the time, “to keep me out of their hair.”

Stewart is a graduate of Webb School in 1983 and the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1987. He spent three years in the Army and returned to Knoxville in 1991 to attend the University of Tennessee School of Law.

Upon graduation, he went to Nashville to practice law and has lived there since with his wife, Ruth, a family physician, and their family. He was first elected to the Legislature in 2008.

Stewart cited the work of former state Rep. Gloria Johnson, who represented the 13th District in 2013-14, as an example of a Democrat who can work with Republicans to pass legislation.

The example he gave was the Tennessee Community Schools Act, which allows a partnership with the school and community professionals for programs before, during and after school hours.

…Stewart claims to have no political ambitions beyond being in the state House, although his father would like him to run for governor someday.

“I am completely focused on being Democratic caucus chairman,” he said.

House Democratic chair bill would repeal N.B. Forrest Day

On Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart announced he will file legislation to abolish Nathan Bedford Forrest Day in Tennessee next year.

July 13 was the Confederate general’s birthday and, under a statute enacted in 1971 the governor has duty to issue a proclamation designating that date annually as a “day of special observance.” Gov. Bill Haslam did so this year.

From the News Sentinel report:

“I can’t think of anything more appropriate than using today as the beginning of the end of Nathan Bedford Forrest Day. We do not need a special day to remember that Forrest commanded the forces who massacred soldiers at Fort Pillow after they had surrendered and laid down their arms,” Stewart said.

“In a state that has produced many genuine military heroes we should not be elevating that sort of service.”

Two other legislators, state Sen. Sara Kyle (D-Memphis) and Rep. Jason Powell (D-Nashville), have pre-filed a bill to prohibit the issuance or renewal of the Sons of Confederate Veterans special licenses plates bearing images of the Confederate flag.

Note: The license plate repeal bill is HB1404. The legislature’s website indicates Stewart hasn’t yet pre-filed his Forrest Day bill.

House Democrats reelect Fitzhugh leader; Stewart as chairman

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — House Democrats have re-elected Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley as minority leader and named Rep. Mike Stewart of Nashville as caucus chairman.

Stewart replaces former Rep. Mike Turner, who retired this year, in the party’s No. 2 leadership position.

Both Fitzhugh and Stewart were elected without opposition. Democrats hold 26 of 99 seats in the House, and several members expressed hope that this will be the smallest caucus they ever serve in.

Democrats lost their majority in the House in the 2008 elections and have suffered steady losses ever since.

House Democrats welcomed three new members to the caucus: Reps. Bill Beck and John Ray Clemmons of Nashville and Kevin Dunlap of McMinnville.

The numbers are even starker for Senate Democrats, who hold just five of 33 seats.

Further from the Commercial Appeal:
“We may be few in numbers but I’m reminded of the Upper Room, where only a few gathered (Christ’s disciples at the Last Supper) and helped the spread of Christianity,” said Rep. JoAnne Favors, D-Chattanooga (at the caucus meeting).

Rep. John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, told his colleagues that, “The working people of Tennessee are depending on us. If we don’t speak up for them, it won’t get done.”

The caucus created a new position of leader pro tem and elected veteran Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, to it. Other officers for the 2015-16 term elected Monday are Reps. Joe Towns, Memphis, assistant Democratic leader; Antonio Parkinson, Memphis, vice caucus chairman; Harold Love Jr., Nashville, secretary; Karen Camper, Memphis, treasurer; Jason Powell, Nashville, floor leader; and Favors as whip. All were elected without opposition.